Finding and hiring experienced Ph.D.-level chemists is often a challenge involving an extensive search and effective "selling" of the position. But there's a few key things we found really help increase the speed and effectiveness of this process.

I've already written about how we at Polyera had honed our process of recruiting entry-level chemists, but - as I mentioned in that post - there are real differences between hiring folks earlier in their careers vs those who are well-established with niche expertise.

The big difference is simple: by definition, when you are hiring into a entry-level PhD or Masters position, there are a lot of scientists in the world who could fill that role. When you're looking for an experienced hire, however, you're typically looking for someone with specific expertise or experience in a given area, which limits your candidate pool. Beyond that, many of these folks are often already happy in their jobs and have established lives, which can make the prospect of moving for a new job more harrowing.

For this reason, the key challenges we faced as an employer was different depending upon the type of hire we were trying to make:

  • For entry-level positions, the challenge is to filter and disqualify the least qualified candidates.
  • For senior positions, the challenge is to find and sell the most qualified candidate.

Once we understood this distinction it dramatically affected the way we conducted our hiring process.

In this post we'll focus on these more experienced hires. (You can find out more about how we improved our entry-level recruiting here.)

Find and Sell

First, to make this process more concrete, let me take a specific example of the kind of candidate I'm talking about when I say an "experienced hire". A few years ago, we were looking to hire a candidate with "Expertise in synthesis and formulation of high-temperature epoxies for clean-room-grade electronics applications."

Now if you think about it, this is a pretty specific set of criteria. In fact, there's probably only in the mid-tens of people in the world who would fit all these criteria...and not only did we need to find these people, we then also needed to convince them that they should uproot their lives to at least some degree and join us instead. It took us awhile to get our process down, but once we did, things started to get a lot easier. Here's what we did.

Phase I: Find

The first problem we faced was simple: how do we even find people who might meet these criteria? At least for us, posting on job boards didn't usually work well, since most of the people we were looking for weren't actively searching for jobs, and even if they were, they themselves often didn't know what to search for in the job postings to find the jobs that were relevant to them.

Now of course this is a function that a recruiter would play, but as I've discussed elsewhere, recruiters often have challenges doing searches for highly-technical positions and are often expensive. Therefore, unless you're using a cost-effective recruiting service like SciBase Recruiting that specializes in Ph.D.-level scientific recruiting, there's a few approaches you can use to help the process go a lot smoother.

#1. Identify Target Companies

One of the most powerful things you can do to focus your search is to identify the companies that are likely to employ the type of person you're looking for. There are many techniques for doing this, but we'll cover just two of them here.

One good way of getting an initial list is to search Google for [company type] companies exhibitors, which finds lists of companies that attend the relevant conferences, and can usually give you very quick, comprehensive lists of relevant companies. The trick here is to find the right phrase for [company type], which you'll have to play with a bit, but once you find the right phrases, you should be in good shape.

Another good way to do this is to use LinkedIn and search for folks who have worked at companies you already have on your list, and see where those folks have worked before and after. For example, in the image below, we had found someone who worked at Dow Electronic Materials (which we already had on our list), but saw that they previously had worked at Rohm and Hass / Shipley ( which we didn't have on my list but we knew was relevant) and Albany International (which we hadn't heard of but would now investigate).

#2. Create a Keyword Map

Regardless of which search methods you use, one of the most helpful things you can do is to create what we called a "keyword map". This is just a list of similar or related concepts or terms to those specifically in your list. The reason we recommend this is that search engines are still most effective when they can match the specific keywords that you use, but its also the case that candidates may not be using the exact same terms or phrases as you when describing their experience or skills. By creating a set of related keywords that you can search for, you may kind the "killer keywords" that brings you the right kinds of candidates.

To build a keyword map, we recommend thinking of a few types of relationships:

  • Synonyms or closely-related terms
  • Supersets
  • Subsets
  • Closely-related techniques or concepts

For example, for the term expoxy some related keywords could be resins, epoxides, polyepoxides, polymers, prepolymers, cross-linked, etc.

One way to build this list is to search on LinkedIn for what you believe are the most obvious set of keywords first, and if you find a candidate that you think is relevant, take particular note of the terms and phrases they use on their profile, as it's likely that similar candidates will use similar terminology.

Keep updating this list as you go through the search process and trying different keywords and phrases -- over time you'll hone in on combinations that work best for your needs.

#3. Search

Once you have a list of target companies and a set of keywords you believe are relevant, the focus really becomes on searching. It's important that all three of these steps happen in a cycle, with you constantly refining your target company list and keywords as you search, but the focus of your effort will change as you 'hone in' on your target list of companies and keywords and are now focused on the right set of folks.

There are a lot of tricks and techniques you can use to more effectively search for candidates, but the the most powerful tools we've found for recruiting PhD positions are LinkedIn, Google, Google Scholar, Google Patent Search, ResearchGate, and - of course - SciBase (note that each of these links takes you to our posts on the best way to use each of these tools for recruiting search purposes)

Though it sounds simple, the most important thing you can do when conducting a search is to be systematic and stay organized. You'll likely find yourself switching from person to person, tab to tab, and site to site frequently, and you can quickly find yourself having spent lots of time randomly clicking on things, but with no semblance of order or idea on how to proceed to the next step.

My advice is to use some sort of software system to keep track of everything. If you're a larger company and have a bit more money to spend (i.e. $250+/mo), I highly recommend RecruiterBox -- they have a very clean applicant tracking system, and a Chrome browser extension which allows you to easily add potential candidates from many places - including LinkedIn! - with a single click:

If you're a small start-up or an individual recruiter where $250/mo is too pricey for you, you might want to consider using Pipedrive in conjunction with Equire. Pipedrive is really more of a sales-focused CRM, but it's easy-to-use pipeline interface and integration with e-mail make it a decent way to track applicants through the recruiting process, and Equire is another Chrome browser extension that let's you quickly add people from LinkedIn, Gmail and other sources - it's a little buggy sometimes, but if you do a lot of prospecting, the time saved is worth it. Pipedrive is $21/mo at the time I'm writing this and Equire is a similar low-monthly fee for unlimited data extraction.

Phase II: Sell

Okay, so you've done your homework and have found a number (30 to 50 at a minimum) that look like interesting prospects. The hard work is over, right?

You wish.

First, most of these folks are probably not even looking for jobs right now -- they are what recruiters call passive candidates. Some of these people will never leave their current jobs (at least not any time soon), but many would consider leaving, but only if the job really is 2x or 3x better than the job they are in now. Of course, maybe you've found the perfect candidate who has mentioned they're looking for a new position right in their LinkedIn headline and lives in your area, but even that candidate will need to understand why your company is the right one to join.

In other words, just because you've found candidates that you might hire does not mean that they want to work for you.

For this reason, your focus at this point in the process has to be not on screening but on selling. Yes, there will come a point when you start screening people out - and much of that will happen naturally as you start talking to people, interviewing, checking references and the like, but in order to have anybody to screen, you've first got to get them interested in applying in the first place. Here's a few tips we found helped us.

#1. Get Them ________

Do you know what the most powerful emotion you can use to get people's attention is?


Take a look at the following list of "sponored links" from Buzzfeed. Remember that media publishing is an intensively competitive business, where companies spend tens of millions of dollars on trying to get eyeballs on their content:

Notice anything in common between all those headlines? They're all designed to pique your curiosity. What's the formula for generating curiosity? Simple:

Curiosity = Interest + Barrier

Let's take the first headline as an example. What if it had read "Click here to read something interesting." Is that as interesting? No: the subject matter isn't even mentioned, so you don't pay any attention.

Now what about this: "Women Are Flocking to Macy's for its 20% Off Sale". Do you feel like you want to click on it? No: you already know everything you need to know, so there's no point in clicking.

But their headline: Why Women Are Flocking to This Incredible New Shopping Site? Now that gets you curious. The reason it's so compelling is because it gives you enough to grab your interest -- people are all flocking somewhere (implying it must be valuable) [Interest]... but you've got to click to find out where[Barrier].

You can apply this to your recruiting efforts when first reaching out to a prospective candidate. For example, consider the following email I might sent to a prospective candidate:

We found that this was a good introduction e-mail for a few reasons:

1. It's short. People are busy. This gets straight to the point and is easy to read.

2. It gets their attention. I tell Paul I think he's be perfect for the position and that I expect he can increase his salary by 20%. While you need to tailor this to your knowledge of the person and the position, you try to say something that is likely to resonate with them. Another thing I could have added is perhaps something like "I'm only reaching out to a handful of people because the position, but you seem like you might be a perfect fit..." -- this would give Paul further reason to feel special and make it seem like this is a credible offer.

3. It creates curiosity. By not going into much detail off the bat, it creates a little bit of curiosity on Paul's side. If he wants more information and he responds, he's now proactively asked for information, and has become a (little) bit more invested in the position. Creating this type of psychological is critical to helping people get on board.

(For more information on this topic, see our post on writing high-quality introduction e-mails.)

#2. Get Them On the Phone

When you are trying to recruit an entry-level candidate who is active looking for a job, it usually much more efficient to put as much information regarding the company and the position in front of the candidate as possible as quickly as possible, so that the candidate can self-select whether or not the position is interesting to them; the candidates are highly-motivated to find a position, and are trying to understand what makes them a good fit for the role.

When you're targeted passive candidates, however, the dynamics are a bit different. Remember, many of these folks aren't really actively looking, may not have a sense of what's out there (and how their current job compares), and many have likely not even thought about what they would want in a position.

From the employer's side, sometimes that "perfect" candidate simply doesn't exist or isn't available, and so need to be a little bit flexible about what candidates are acceptable.

Furthermore, highly-skilled scientists in particular tend to be very skeptical and precise by nature, so they'll often look at ways to disqualify themselves from the position.

For example, some time ago we did a search where the ideal candidate was someone with significant commercial experience in "flexible thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) system formulation for footwear applications" for a company that was working on 3D printing. We had found a candidate that had TPU formulation experience in footwear, but his first response when we had (against our better judgement) sent him the full job description?

"Sorry, I don't have any 3D printing experience."

Now it while it would have been "nice to have" someone who also had 3D printing experience, it certainly wasn't a requirement, and in fact was going to be fairly unlikely since the whole point of the company trying to hire this person was because they wanted to be one of the first companies working on 3D printing footwear. But instead, this candidate had immediately disqualified himself from the position without a true understanding of the full situation. While we were eventually able to get him back to the table, having someone say "no" - even with something small - creates negative psychological momentum that only makes your job more difficult.

It's for these reasons that we typically don't put that much information in the introductory e-mail, and why we typically try to get a prospect on the phone as quickly as possible. Not only do you establish a better relationship and learn more about a person quickly by talking to them, but it makes it a lot easier to have the right kind of conversation on both sides.

#3. Get them on a Plane (or Bus, or Car)

Once you've spoken with them and determined that they are in at least your top 20%, if you can afford to do so, you really want to push for an in-person meeting as soon as possible, and -- and this is important if they are married or in a serious relationship and this job would require them to move -- invite their spouse.

Why is this important? Because if a candidate is in a serious relationship, is married, and/or has a family, you don't just have to sell the candidate, you need to sell the family.

I can't tell you the number of times I've seen candidates not take a job because they don't want to uproot their significant other or family, or - in a few circumstances - move, with the intent to have their family move later, only to have the strain of being apart from their family make them quit just a few months into the new job.

By inviting the spouse to come along, you'll achieve a number of things at once:

  • You'll signal to the candidate - and their spouse - that you're really interested in having the candidate work for you.

  • You'll impress the spouse with your thoughtfulness and signal to them both that your company is the kind of place where the candidate will be appreciated.

  • You'll give them the opportunity to explore the city/town where you are located, helping them truly picture themselves living there. No matter what people may tell you, having a concrete experience really helps...particularly if you're located somewhere that people don't have a great "mental picture" of.

  • Finally, you'll get a chance to actually meet the spouse and see the interaction between them and the candidate, which can often tell you a lot: a flexible, easy-going spouse is likely to be a lot more forgiving if the candidate needs to work late, travel, etc.

If you really want to roll out the red carpet, book the tickets to allow the candidate and their spouse to stay over the weekend, and plan to show them around, including some neighborhoods where they might want to live....with houses for a good school district, etc. The idea is to help both the candidate and their spouse be able to "see themselves living in X".

Applying This to Your Busines

It's important to understand that recruiting senior-level positions is as much about finding and selling the candidate as it is about assessing them. Of course you need to make sure that the candidate is qualified to do the job, but if you've followed our advice on interviewing PhDs and Post-Docs, you should be fine. The other peice of the puzzle - and the part that will really set you apart from your competitors - is to be able to find and attract that top-quality talent in the first place.